In the early part of the 15th century over ninety percent of Hanse exports from England were of cloth. Various types, referred to as ‘’worsteds’, ‘serge’, ‘Irish’ and ‘Welsh’ were handled but by far the biggest volume was in ‘kersey’. It was a course cloth that had originated in Suffolk but was by then produced throughout England. Incoming Hanse ships brought a great variety of goods from across the Continent and beyond, including Skania herrings from the Baltic, Russian squirrel skins, Baltic fur, copper, iron, laton (a mixed metal resembling brass), wax, timber, from southern Sweden, stockfish, corn, tar, querns (mill stones), glass, mirrors, linen, silk, thread, north German beer and much more.
Individual Hanse towns and merchants, who had previously traded with a variety of individual ports in England, were by the end of the 14th century restricting themselves exclusively to one destination, such as Lübeckers at Boston and Prussians at Hull. London, at which a number of Hanse towns were trading, was the exception. It had by then overtaken Boston as the leading Hanse ‘Kontor’ (or base) in England, with at least 28 merchants permanently based at their London guildhall in 1381.
The Hanse gildhall was located on the riverside, upriver of London Bridge, where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames. By 1382 it was being referred to as the ‘Steelyard’. The 19th century German historian J,M. Lappenberg considered it an anglicization of the German or Dutch word Stalhof, meaning an emporium of imported goods. However, as we have seen, ‘steelyard’ was also an ancient word for the apparatus used for weighing heavy goods. Between the 12th and 16th centuries the Steelyard grew considerably in size, expanding to three acres. The historian John Stow, writing at the end of the 16th century, described it as:
…large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the other, and is seldom opened, the other two be mured [closed] up. The same is now called the old hall. In the 6th [year] of Richard II they hired one house next adjoining to their old hall, which sometime belonged to Richard Lions, a famous lapidary [gem-cutter], one of the sheriffs of London in the 49th [year] of Edward III… This was also a great house with a large wharf on the Thames, and the way thereunto…which is now called Windgoose Alley, for that the same alley is for the most part built on by the steelyard merchants.
The Steelyard was a walled community with its own warehouses, accommodation and offices, currency, and system of measurements. Women were forbidden from entering and the twenty or thirty merchants living there led an almost monastic life, avoiding as much as possible contact with the local population and the pleasures of London and Southwark. Any members breaking the rules were required to pay a fine in the form of candlewax at the neighbouring All Hallows church. It was at that church that the Hanse merchants worshiped and during the 14th century they endowed it with a chapel, altars and a stained-glass window.
The 15th century was a more difficult time for the Hanse merchants, with various wars and trade disputes as obstacles to their business. There were prolonged disputes with England and instability on the Continent, causing a fall in demand for the cloth that made up the bulk of their business with England. Their trade with the east coast ports declined dramatically, in some cases ceasing altogether. At the beginning of the century around half of all Hanse trade with England took place in London but by the end of the 1430s London’s share had risen to over eighty percent, despite not actually increasing in volume.
While exports declined, imports fared even worse. The Dutch had improved their methods of curing herring and trade disputes between England and Prussia meant that Hanseatic supplies from the Baltic were no longer required. Squirrel skin also went out of fashion in England in the 15th century.
Henry IV confirmed the Hanse franchise in England in 1399 but it was then dependent upon reciprocal rights for English merchants in Hanse towns. That stipulation became an increasingly problematic issue in the following century and a half. The Steelyard was continually kept busy with diplomatic missions. There were attacks on Hansa ships by privateers and subsequent compensation claims, and negotiations for a new treaty that was finally signed in 1437. At one point the Hanse at the Steelyard found themselves caught in the middle of a dispute between England and Denmark and all except those from Cologne imprisoned. That resulted in 1469 in all-out war between England and those Hanse towns involved and a rift within the Hanse between Cologne and the other towns.
When Edward IV returned from exile two years later, however, he arrived aboard a Hanse ship. As he prepared for war with France the Hanse dispute was a distraction he no longer needed and peace negotiations with them were agreed, excluding Cologne. Furthermore:
It is ordained by our soveraigne lord, and his parliament, that the said merchants of Almaine, being of the companie called Guildhall Teutonicorum (or the Flemish gild), that now be, or hereafter shall be, shall have, hold, and enjoy, to them and their successors for ever, the said place called the Steelhouse, yielding to the said mayor and communaltie an annuall rent of £70. 3s. 4d.
Their exclusion was a bitter blow to the Cologners who not only faced the loss of their valuable trade with England but also the freehold of their base in London of the past three centuries. Disputes between the Cologners and the other Hanse members regarding possession of the Steelyard dragged on for several years but reconciliation was eventually reached.
The artist Hans Holbein arrived in London from Basel in 1532 and rented a house close to the Steelyard. While living there he painted the portraits of at least eight of its members, perhaps to send back to their families with whom they may have been separated for months or years. The Hanse also commissioned a two-panelled wall hanging for their Great Hall entitled The Triumphs of Riches and Poverty. The original was destroyed by fire in the 18th century but copies still exist. A further commission from Holbein by the merchants was for a tableau of Apollo and the Muses, as their contribution to the pageant to welcome Henry VIII’s new bride Anne Boleyn to London in May 1533.